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Top 10 Times Comedians Crossed the Line

VO: Rebecca Brayton

Script written by Q.V. Hough.

When does a joke go too far? CAN comedy go too far? Many feel that some controversial comedians are also offensive comedians. Whether it’s Jimmy Kimmel making a joke about Flavor Flav’s parenting skills by comparing him to Chris Benoit, Kathy Griffin posing with a fake bloody Donald Trump head or Tracy Morgan talking about killing his son if he turned out gay, many feel these are jokes that were in bad taste. WatchMojo counts down ten comedians that went too far.

Special thanks to our user Muppet_Face for suggesting this idea! Check out the voting page at WatchMojo.comsuggest/Top%2010%20Times%20Comedians%20Crossed%20the%20Line


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Script written by Q.V. Hough.

Top 10 Times Comedians Crossed the Line

There’s a fine line between edgy humor and poor taste. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Times Comedians Crossed the Line.

For this list, we’re focusing on well-known comedians that went too far in their attempts to be controversial.

#10: Russell Brand & Sachsgate

Back in 2008, this British comic was still hosting a radio show for the BBC, wherein he often pushed the boundaries of comedy. But when he and Jonathan Ross pranked British comedy legend Andrew Sachs, many think he pushed too hard. Not only did the pair clown the “Fawlty Towers” performer with a series of prank calls; they also made it personal, with Ross making mention that Brand had bedded Sachs’ granddaughter. It kinda went downhill from there, and once the tabloids got a hold of it, the BBC received over 30 thousand complaints. In the end, Brand resigned, Ross was suspended for 12 weeks, and Sachs later accepted both their apologies.

#9: Jimmy Kimmel’s Chris Benoit Joke

While some comedians cross the line for attention, others do it for the moment. Jimmy Kimmel was already a prominent late-night figure in 2007, but not so much that he couldn’t take risks on cable television. So, at Comedy Central’s “Roast of Flavor Flav,” he used a professional wrestler’s murder-suicide to make a statement about his subject’s parenting skills. Yes, roasts are notoriously off-color, but based on the looks on the faces in the crowd, the general consensus was that this joke was too much too soon, since it had been less than a month since the professional wrestler had killed his family and then himself.

#8: Lena Dunham’s Abortion Comments

Actress, writer, producer and comedian Lena Dunham uses comedy to address personal issues with humor. However, unlike many of the other entries on our list, Dunham isn’t a traditional standup comic, so she makes headlines through social media, literature and interviews. In late 2016, many felt she crossed the line while speaking on her podcast – Women of the Hour – about a controversial subject: abortion. Rather than focusing on the difficult choice many women have had to make, Dunham made it about herself. The general public took issue with what they said was her trivialization of a complex issue. Dunham issued an apology via Instagram.

#7: Tracy Morgan’s Gay Son Remarks

Some of the content of this “SNL” and “30 Rock” alum’s stand-up might surprise you. For example, during a Nashville show in 2011, the usually goofy comedian launched into a joke where he essentially said if his son were gay he’d better talk to him like a man or he’d pull out a knife and stab him to death. Some critics – like LGBT advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign – took this as hate speech, understanding the joke to mean Tracy would kill his son if he were gay. However, on the other end of the spectrum were comedians like Louis C.K., who tried to interpret what Morgan was going for with the comment. Either way, he apologized.

#6: Kathy Griffin’s Donald Trump Photo Shoot

Kathy Griffin carved herself a comedy niche with her direct manner of speech, her observations of everyday life and her lampooning of celebrity culture. And in the world of stand-up comedy, it’s crucial to stay on top of timely issues. However, Griffin took a huge step backwards in her career in 2017 when she took her negative feelings for President Donald Trump to a disturbing extreme. In a photo shoot with photographer Tyler Shields, Griffin posed with what looked like the bloody head of Trump. Though she received some support after these pics hit social media, Griffin was for the most part roundly criticized, losing several jobs as a result and becoming a pop culture pariah.

#5: Amy Schumer’s Ryan Dunn Joke

Like so many of her peers, this comic makes headlines by consistently addressing taboo subjects. But, there’s a time and a place for cracking jokes about recently deceased individuals. At Comedy Central’s 2011 “Roast of Charlie Sheen,” the main subject willfully accepted verbal abuse, but one particular guest, Steve-O, was caught off-guard. Less than three months after “Jackass” star Ryan Dunn passed away in a car crash, Amy Schumer went to a dark place by not only bringing up the death, but also by using the event to make a joke. Steve O’s reaction says it all – and he wasn’t pleased after the fact, either.

#4: Bill Maher’s Use of the N-Word

This established late night host doesn’t always play by the rules. In fact, he often takes shots at both conservative AND liberals, not to mention other agenda-driven groups. And, as you can expect, sometimes his loose lips get him in trouble. Case in point: the June 2017 incident where he casually used the n-word in comedic conversation with Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse. Many people slammed Maher: some chalked up his usage of the loaded word to simple poor taste; some said he was using it as a racial slur, and some surmised that Maher would never understand the word’s significance. Malicious intent or not, this experienced comedian ended up apologizing for his actions.

#3: Gilbert Gottfried’s 9/11 Joke

Right after the September 11th attacks, jokes referencing the tragedy were basically not acceptable in day-to-day conversation. Of course, many comics embrace sadness to make people laugh. But Gilbert Gottfried surprised everybody when he used 9/11 to set up a joke at the Friar’s Club Roast of Hugh Hefner, just three weeks after thousands of people lost their lives. Basically, he explained that he couldn’t get a direct flight to New York because “they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” The joke offended many for obvious reasons, with one audience member yelling “too soon!” 9/11 jokes are a bit less taboo today, but in 2001 comedians needed to tread lightly.

#2: Daniel Tosh’s Rape Joke

For comedians, live shows and crowd interaction can prompt shocking statements. During a stand-up set in 2012, Tosh chose not only to make a joke about rape, but also to include an audience member in the routine. In this case, there’s no video of the incident, but apparently the audience member in question had heckled Tosh, saying that rape jokes aren’t funny. Tosh responded by saying, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?” Some critics saw this less as a joke and more as an invitation, and though some comedians defended him, Mr. Tosh was compelled to apologize.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:
- Lenny Bruce’s Use of the Word “C**ksucker”
- George Carlin’s Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television
- Andy Kaufman & the Old Lady’s Heart Attack

#1: Michael Richards’ Racially Charged Rant

In the ‘90s, this screwball comic was a mainstay on “Seinfeld.” But his career spiraled out of control after a racially charged meltdown in 2006 at the iconic Laugh Factory comedy club in West Hollywood. While comedians often use audience distractions to their advantage, taking the opportunity to heckle hecklers or otherwise mock people, Richards instead unloaded on a group of latecomers with racial slurs. Unfortunately for him, this moment was caught on camera, and – as you can expect – the rant did not sit well with the audience or the media. Richards made an awkward apology, and even spoofed the incident himself, but in the end he withdrew from performing stand-up altogether.

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